Nature magazine, one of the premier science journals, carried a startling news story last week about a study charting the precipitous decline of “disruptive” scientific research, concluding that this decline is also reducing technological innovation. Using typically advanced quantitative techniques of a massive data set, the full study reports a more than 90 percent decline in “disruptive” scientific findings across nearly all fields over the last 70 years. One of the authors of the study told Nature, “The data suggest something is changing. You don’t have quite the same intensity of breakthrough discoveries you once had.” The chart Nature produced for the story is striking:
Perhaps the most startling aspect of the story is the sub-headline Nature used: “No One Knows Why.” The best the authors can do is the feeble theory that “larger research teams” hinder heterodox investigations.
This finding is ominous, and may help explain the slowing pace of technological innovation, as summarized in Peter Thiel’s famous comment that “we were promised flying cars, but only got 140 characters.” As anyone who follows the holy grail of “innovation” knows, disruption is a prime precursor of progress, highly prized in Silicon Valley as it is in academia. Even before the jargon of “disruption” and “innovation” took over our popular vocabulary, the idea that science progresses by fundamental “paradigm shifts”—or breakthrough discoveries that challenge or overturn the existing consensus—has been widely accepted ever since Thomas Kuhn’s classic explanation in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Nature avoids the most significant and obvious explanation with the myopia of Inspector Clouseau, which is the deadly confluence of ideology and the increasingly narrow conformism of academic specialties. Perhaps this is grasped even more simply by noting the authoritarian attitude expressed in the now-ubiquitous phrase, “The Science,” with the tacit assumption being that science is fully “settled” and that the “consensus” science is unassailable. The epitome of this anti-scientific presumption was best expressed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who declared during the Covid pandemic that “I represent science,” implying an infallibility previously reserved only for popes.
La science c'est moi.
It is hardly news that dissenting from the “consensus” position of the increasingly left-leaning scientific establishment in academic or government is dangerous to your career and reputation. It is sometimes thought that the “hard” sciences such as physics and chemistry are largely immune for the leftist tide that have destroyed the social sciences and the humanities in our universities, but this is less and less true with every passing year.
Back in 2004, the renowned Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote in the New York Review of Books that “Most scientists are, at a minimum, liberals, although it is by no means obvious why this should be so,” and MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel, very much in the so-called “consensus” of climate science, was honest enough to lament “the shocking lack of political diversity among American academics, who suffer from the kind of group-think that develops in cloistered cultures. Until this profound and well-documented intellectual homogeneity changes, scientists will be suspected of constituting a leftist think tank.”
Our disgraceful news media is only too happy to act as a megaphone against any person who challenges the party line. Witness Dr. Scott Atlas, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, or any of the other eminent medical experts who dissented from the party line over Covid policy, who were hounded relentlessly (including death threats that required police protection), even though their criticisms have been fully vindicated.
This kind of enforced conformity has been building for a while. A decade ago Dr. James Enstrom, an epidemiologist at UCLA’s School of Public Health, was summarily fired after 36 years on the faculty after he disputed the shoddy science behind some of California’s air pollution regulations. In climate science, the groupthink and demonization of dissenting views is so severe that even tenured scientists dare not challenge the climate dogma directly, for one thing because no leading science journal will publish any findings that go against “The Science,” because it is “settled.” Any young researcher who dissents will likely be denied tenure, and a politician such as British MP Andrew Bridgen (above), can get suspended from his party for daring to challenge the orthodoxy.
The tiny number of graduate students in the social sciences who might be interested in researching racial questions that dissent from the “anti-racist” party line of the moment are strongly discouraged from doing to, and often can’t find a faculty adviser for such work.
So suppose you are a young—and untenured—faculty in a science department at a university or government agency. What is the best career path forward? It lies in producing small, incremental work that builds within the boundaries of the existing “consensus.” Boldness and unconventional thinking is not only unlikely to be rewarded, but will likely be a hindrance to your career advancement.
The United States is already paying a high price for what even the left-leaning scholar Cass Sunstein calls “the dominance of conformity,” and it appears the problem is only getting worse.